Churches face another test with omicron

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Key points

  • Some United Methodist churches in the U.S. are moving back to online worship only because of the fast spread of the omicron variant.
  • Others are making different kinds of adjustments, such as again requiring masks for those coming to church.
  • Testing and vaccinations are occurring at some United Methodist churches.

The high-speed surge of the omicron variant is presenting another pandemic challenge to United Methodist churches, prompting some to back away from in-person gatherings, with others making more modest changes.

Preston Hollow United Methodist Church in Dallas is among those that have gone to online worship only through January.

The Rev. Tom Waitschies, pastor, said his church’s leadership team made the decision as COVID-19 case numbers began to rise after omicron’s arrival in the U.S.

“When I polled them, the entire leadership was in the affirmative,” Waitschies said. “You have to do as much as you can to keep people safe.”

Though early studies are showing omicron to be milder than other variants, it’s highly transmissible, leading to an alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations in much of the U.S., as well as disruptions in some school systems and workplaces.

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca, New York, is near Cornell University, which made national news with an early omicron outbreak.

The church’s safety planning team, which includes a Cornell virologist, made the hard decision to have just one Christmas Eve service and make it online only.

“That week before Christmas Eve, when we were trying to make the decision about what to do, was very stressful,” said the Rev. Beckie Sweet, St. Paul’s senior pastor. “We all wanted to be together to celebrate the birth of Christ.”

But Sweet said she’s sure the team made the right decision, given the local situation. She added that the congregation has been supportive.

For now, the church is sticking with online gatherings only.

The Rev. Paul Purdue of Belmont United Methodist Church leads the meditation during an outdoor Christmas Eve service in 2021 at Rose Park in Nashville, Tenn., for those who felt more comfortable worshipping outdoors. “It’s just one of those times when we need to stay in love with each other and stay in love with God and do the best we can,” Purdue said. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Paul Purdue of Belmont United Methodist Church leads the meditation during an outdoor Christmas Eve service in 2021 at Rose Park in Nashville, Tenn., for those who felt more comfortable worshipping outdoors. “It’s just one of those times when we need to stay in love with each other and stay in love with God and do the best we can,” Purdue said. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

“We’re taking it week by week at this point and using every means of communication we have to keep the congregation and community informed,” Sweet said.

Community United Methodist Church, in Crofton, Maryland, had seen growth in worship attendance and giving through the fall, and the positive energy carried over into its in-person Christmas Eve services.

But last week, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Erik Alsgaard, began feeling ill.

“I thought, ‘Oh, boy.’ I’d done enough research to know I probably had COVID,” he said.

Alsgaard, who had been vaccinated and boosted, did indeed test positive on Dec. 31. All the audio-visual team members were exposed to the virus, and he told them not to come to church. 

Community United Methodist had to call off worship altogether for Jan. 2.

“We didn’t have anybody to do a livestream if we’d wanted to,” the pastor said.

Advice for churches

The Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacraments offers advice for how churches can gather safely during the pandemic. Click here for the website.

Alsgaard is feeling better, though was still having to isolate earlier this week. Community United Methodist plans to resume in-person and online worship this Sunday, with mask-wearing strongly encouraged for all who come to church.

Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, is carrying on with in-person worship but, because of omicron, has gone back to pre-packaged communion wafers and juice, and has suspended children’s gatherings until after Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan.17.

Knowing that some people remain wary about gathering indoors, Belmont church leaders added a late afternoon outside service in a Nashville park for Christmas Eve.

“I’m sure omicron led more people to come to that than would have come normally,” said the Rev. Paul Purdue, Belmont’s senior pastor.

He choked up talking about the ongoing challenge of safeguarding church members’ safety while also trying to meet their spiritual needs and keep them from feeling isolated.

“It’s just one of those times when we need to stay in love with each other and stay in love with God and do the best we can,” Purdue said.

Some United Methodist churches have gone back to requiring masks for gatherings. And some U.S. annual conferences have encouraged churches to be vigilant about safety.

The North Georgia Conference posted a Dec. 30 letter Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and her cabinet wrote to conference churches.

“In light of the very contagious omicron variant of COVID-19, we urge you to review your in-person worship and discipleship plans,” the letter says. “Clergy and church leadership, we support you if, because of an increase of cases or low vaccination rates in your area, you feel you need to pause and return to online worship.”

Drivers line up for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing at a site administered by Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. The United Methodist-related school works with Metro Nashville government to manage the city’s free COVID-19 drive-through testing sites. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Drivers line up for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing at a site administered by Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. The United Methodist-related school works with Metro Nashville government to manage the city’s free COVID-19 drive-through testing sites. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

As the omicron surge continues, some United Methodist churches are part of the public health response.

Waiting lines have increased at Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, Michigan, a community COVID-19 testing site. At Coker United Methodist Church, in San Antonio, the weekly pop-up vaccination site has been busy as well, including parents bringing children.

“I’m hearing of a lot of cases,” said Sonia Cavazos, a Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas nurse based at the church, under the Wesley Nurse program. “(Omicron) is so contagious. It’s like the measles.”

Meharry Medical College, a United Methodist-affiliated institution in Nashville, Tennessee, also has been part of the response, seeing long lines as it offers both testing and vaccinations.

Some United Methodist seminaries and United Methodist-related colleges have adapted policies since omicron emerged.

For example, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary had employees working remotely this week. The school has set a March 1 deadline for students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 booster shot, and is urging them to get boosted immediately.

The omicron challenge has led to at least one happy story of United Methodist connectionalism — in this case the international variety.

Trondheim (United) Methodist Church in Trondheim, Norway, was unable to meet in person on Christmas Eve, due to pandemic-related government restrictions. Ole-Einar Andersen, who handles communications for the church, was determined that the online devotional for that night be extra special.

So he got in touch with the Rev. Duane Anders, a Facebook friend of his and pastor at the Cathedral of the Rockies, a United Methodist Church in Boise, Idaho.

At Andersen’s request, Anders arranged for the Boise church’s organist, David Young, to record himself playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” on Cathedral of the Rockies’ powerful Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, for use in the Trondheim church’s online devotional.

Andersen called the musical Christmas gift “a true blessing.”

“It felt good to have friends help us realize we are part of a great church.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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